“This is a women’s soccer school. We’re just trying to keep up with them.”
Dean Smith. UNC Basketball Head Coach
In mid-August Carine and I spent a week of pre-season in Chapel Hill visiting at the time, the #1 ranked team in the country and hands down the most famous successful womens soccer programs and overall most successful program in NCAA history- 'The North Carolina Womens Soccer Tarheels'. We were hosted by the my former teammate and current UNC Womens Soccer GM Chris Ducar (and family) who oversees recruiting, fundraising and ‘NIL’. Since 1997 Chris has been GK coach, Assistant Coach and head of recruiting for UNC and is a vital wheel in the UNC cog today.
While there we observed up close as the only guests the entire week daily training sessions run by legendary North Carolina Womens Soccer head coach Anson Dorrance and his Associate head coach Damon Nahas and witnessed UNC demolish Virginian Commonwealth in a pre-season friendly. We spent significant time with Anson, Damon and Chris and reminisced with team manager Tom Sander about the Australia and New Zealand trip we took the team on (see tour summary here https://soccerbookconsulting.com/international-tours
It wasn’t our first trip to Chapel Hill. Our involvement with the program and coaches go back many years. We have been long associated with Anson Dorrance as well as our former teammate Chris Ducar who started his coaching career with my brother Simon and I at World Soccer in California in 1991. We’ve also taken UNC on tour to Australia and New Zealand for their post season NCAA Champions Tour and trained and recommend several players to UNC. We’ve also worked camps at UNC and held satellite camps for UNC in California as well as taking our clubs teams on UNC campus visits.
UNC’s beautiful campus is located in the heart of Chapel HiIl with its with 17th century buildings located near the intimate downtown area, with tree lined streets and walled fences lush green vegetation. Integrating historic brick buildings on campus lies the home of UNC womens soccer, ‘Dorrance Field’, named after the most successful coach of any US athletic program in NCAA history-Rivaling may professional football facilities its wonderfully laid out brand new soccer specific exceptionally well manicured all grass field and attractive stadium nestled into the UNC sports complex nestled into the sports complex at UNC.
While there we visited the beautiful Chapel Hill Botanic Gardens and newly redeveloped and regenerated Durham where we saw the famous Bull Durham (Kevin Costner) movie location. With the training ground within walking distance we enjoyed some pleasant strolls and light workouts before the actual team practice.
The town of Chapel Hill is located 15 minutes from Raleigh-Durham Airport UNC’s stadium is a 1 hr. flight from New York, 1:20 mins. from Atlanta, 1:45 mins. from Miami and a 2 hr. drive to NASCAR’s HQ in Charlotte where MLS club Charlotte FC and Carolina Panthers are based. Its a 3.5 hours drive to Myrtle Beach where US Club Soccer is based & 25 mins. from Soccer.com HQ. 1.5 hours from Wake Forest. and 20 mins. from rivals, Duke University. It’s also home to iconic musician James Taylor, famous author John Grisham, music band Ben Folds Five. The largest overseas private investors in NZ property, Tiger Fund founder Julian Robertson, was a UNC alumni as was the inventor of Pepsi Cola, Caleb Branham.
Every few months Carine and I will select an iconic club or coach to visit so we can interact with game changing individuals in person and ‘live it’ with them and immerse ourselves in their unique culture. We converse about the ‘secret sauce’, exchange ideas and get to know key individuals and culture keepers. Instead of accumulating coaching badges or licenses we instead choose to meet game changing individuals who write the books, deliver the seminars and coaching sessions which rewards us with a deeper learning experience. It’s a pilgrimage of sorts. From watching sessions up close to discussing the reasons behind the content, not just to collect drills and to speak in depth on their philosophy, vision about the game and life and their values and beliefs over coffee and a meal is the most meaningful and rewarding way to learn. Through our work and personal and professional connections over many years we have been fortunate to meet and work alongside some of the most successful and recognizable people and visit some of the most sacred institutions behind closed doors and really find out how things work and what makes these people tick. Anson Dorrance is one of these people.
We arrived in humid Chapel Hill shortly after the England Womens National team won the EUROS and former UNC Tarheels players were being celebrated for ‘bringing football back home’ to England. The England team connection to UNC is very strong with their Dutch born coach Sarina Wiegman being a Tarheel- (she called UNC a ‘football paradise’), as are former Tarheel players Lucy Bronze of Manchester City (now Barcelona) and Manchester United player Alessia Russo who scored ‘that’ goal vs. Sweden as well as Arsenal Player Wubben-Moy. Given the recent success of UNC alumni in the EUROS there has been much attention focused on UNC and Anson Dorrance and his players and staff which has resulted in several media outlets visiting, such as the BBC, to find out what the UNC ‘secret sauce is’. Anson is the most successful coach of any sport in NCAA history, let alone football and founder of NCAA Womens Soccer. He has won a remarkable 22 of 37 NCAA championships and is a World Cup winning champion. 12 UNC players have played over 100 games for the USA and more than any other program in college soccer history (60 players) have represented the USA such as Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Heather O'Reilly, Megan Klingenberg, Whitney Engen, Lori Chalupny, Cat Reddick, Tisha Venturini, Lorrie Fair (currently working for Charlie Theron leading her South African foundation from LA) Cindy Parlow as well as current USA players Lindsay Horan, Ashlyn Harris. Crystal Dunn, Tobin Heath and Jessica McDonald. Former USA Womens National Team coach April Heinrichs is an alumni of the program.
UNC also boast another iconic college sports program. It’s considered the most successful mens college basketball program in the country, and where Michael Jordan played before becoming one of the best athletes in all of sports history. He played for legendary coach Dean Smith, widely known for his ‘Carolina Way’ of coaching in which he challenged his players to play hard, play smart, play together, excellence in the classroom, as well as on the court. The ‘Carolina Way’ was evident in many practices the players would implement, including pointing to the player who assisted in a basket, giving him credit as an act of selflessness. This ‘Thank the Passer’ practice is used throughout basketball today.
There are few youth players in the country if not the world who would not want to play at UNC and coaches galore wax lyrical about the success of Anson Dorrance and his famed womens soccer program. No-one else was observing the pre-season trainings aside from Carine and myself. No parents, no referees- just 30+ players typing to make the starting team for Sunday’s pre-season friendly. We were able to get close to the action without being lost in the crowd and made to feel welcome with multiple meetings and conversations about the philosophy and training content and culture at UNC- much of which we knew already but it was refreshing and inspiring to see the energy and drive and commitment that Anson still has after so many years at the helm as well as his staff working as hard as ever to keep the UNC flame alight.
Anson and his assistant Damon were constantly demanding more, demanding excellence, insisting that the quality players are expected of them and remind them of the honor they must show to wear the UNC shirt and protect the legacy that previous UNC squads and players have established before them. To wear the Tarheel shirt means show up hungry, in shape, with your touch refined and ready to train and compete for your spot. When you look at the bench you see players ready to step in and the level wont drop. Players know it and thrive on it. Anson still has his sharp wit and humor and offers honest direct feedback- always demanding higher standard, setting the bar and challenging the players which every top player wants and needs of course. Its all about excellence, standards and quality.
On our last day in Chapel Hill we did a 5:45 am fitness session in the football stadium that was a dare with UNC triathlete group which Carine kicked 'you know what’ (i’m still recovering from double knee surgery but did a lot of it ;) before having a final brunch with Anson to soak up as much as we could from the man and headed back to California. We will return to Chapel Hill again soon!
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